The Old and the New
Steve had been working with Mark to help work through a problem. Mark had worked with his new group for a few weeks, but seemed to have trouble settling in. So Steve had stopped by. After a bit of small talk, Steve posed a question. “Tell me, Mark,” he began, “tell me what you think it was like in your old group. Why do you think things worked so smoothly?”
“Well, everybody knew what his or her job was, and where that job stopped and the next person’s job began. We worked like a well-oiled machine,” Mark explained. We discovered routines that worked really well. They worked so well, in fact, that turnover in the staff was a real non-issue.”
“How so? You mean you didn’t have any?” Steve asked.
“No, we had some, not a lot, probably just an average amount. But when someone left, the new person knew what the job was. We had sort of clarified and condensed the job’s requirements. Our goal was to get it so that when we did have turnover we would not also have upheaval.”
“And you did this by carefully defining the job, drawing its boundaries, you say?”
Mark continued his explanation: “Right. When we brought someone new in we expected that they could do the job as it was laid out. The whole operation was so ‘regularized’ that the new person’s contribution, their value to the overall organization was in the ability of the person to just fit in. ‘Doing the job’ is where the value was.”
Steve prodded a little more. “So you weren’t necessarily looking for the most independent sort of people then? The sort who would ask a lot of questions?”
“Absolutely not!” Mark insisted. “We wanted someone who would follow instructions, someone who would comply with the procedures, and do it efficiently. No loose cannons, please!”
“That sounds like a pretty traditional kind of hierarchy, you know.” Steve continued, “One person gives instructions and the others follow them, right?”
“Well don’t make them sound like mindless slaves,” Mark countered defensively. “They were there because they wanted to be. But, bottom-line, the operation was pretty routine, and it’s almost like there was some unwritten contract between the boss and the workers. ‘You do your job right, and there’ll be a place for you.’”
Steve paused, looking for another way to encourage Mark to think about the old situation. “Why did you leave that organization? If it was such a well-oiled machine, why not stay and cruise along?”
Now it was Mark’s turn to pause. He thought for a couple minutes then answered, “I guess it was mostly the challenge of moving to this group where I am now, where things were definitely not ‘well-oiled.’ There wasn’t much challenge left in the old group – it was kind of a maintenance effort – KTTR, keep the train running. The people were so used to just depending on someone else to give them instructions.” Steve nodded and Mark continued, “I was pretty comfortable, and the others in the group seemed pretty comfortable. It was more about the excitement of going to the new group. I didn’t feel any special pain on leaving that group – it was a mission accomplished.”
Steve asked for clarification. “You mean you didn’t feel … um … connected to your work group before?”
“Yeah, that’s close. But, in all honesty, it was also partly out of boredom. That’s one of the things I noticed about this group when I came over for the interview. These people don’t seem to be here to do a job – there’s something else going on, but I don’t know just what it is yet.”
. . .
Mark called Steve later in the week to ask him to drop by for a couple minutes. When Steve showed up, Mark thanked him for stopping in. “I said before that I wasn’t feeling …” Mark hesitated looking for the right word, then continued, “… connected before. Well, I think that for me, at least, that was really more important than I thought. I kind of felt like I was maneuvering other people and being maneuvered myself. Not in the really negative sense of being manipulated, but not really participating either. Here, on the other hand, the people say that they feel like they’re actually participating. With each other.”
Steve remembered the earlier conversation. Mark had said something about the old environment being one of dependence, where the workers depended on the managers. “You said before,” he reminded Mark, “something about the old group being dependent. How would you characterize this new group?”
“Well, the nature of the work here is that no one person really knows it all, not even all of a fairly small piece. Especially not the person who’s ‘in charge.’ So they can’t operate in a dependent mode. It’s just too complex and too fluid. But they can’t operate independently either, for the same reasons. What’s left if you’re not dependent and not independent? Isn’t it either/or?”
“Hmmm … What about interdependent?” Steve asked.
“Well, that’s an interesting twist.”
“If you use participate and interdependent to describe this new group – along with some less positive words for the quality of coordination you’ve seen ….” Steve smiled. He took a big sheet of blank paper and drew a line down the middle from top to bottom. On the left side he wrote “Old Group” and on the right side, “New Group”. “What are the key things we want to focus on?”
Mark thought briefly, then offered, “Well, I’d speculate that the things of real interest are the nature of the jobs that people have and their attitudes about them.” He took the pencil and drew a circle near the bottom on each side of the line and circle near the top on each side.
Old Group New Group
“In the old group,” he began, thinking out loud, “the job was about following the routine. The idea was that we had figured out the ‘right’ way to do it, and the deal was that the worker just did it that way. That whole ‘dependence’ routine of complying with the instructions.” He wrote Compliance in the lower left circle. “And in the new group, I’ve already said the people really want to participate.” And he wrote Participation in the lower right.
Steve thought for a second then said, “Why did you draw four circles? What are the top ones for?” Mark replied that he figured if he was going to put the workers in the picture, he probably ought to put the managers on, too. Steve asked, “So what does the manager bring in the old group? What’s the defining characteristic?”
Mark without any hesitation wrote Command and Control at the top left. “No doubt,” he explained, “the role of the manager is to give instructions and see that they’re followed.” After a moment’s lapse, he continued, “But I don’t know what goes here, in the top right. It’s kind of like participation, but on a grander scale or something. It’s still working together but on a bigger picture. What word gets that across?”
Steve sat and deliberated, looking for a good word. After a minute or two he said, “You mentioned ‘working together’. That sounds kind of like co-labor … will collaborate work?”
Old Group New Group
Steve picked up an idea Mark had mentioned a few minutes earlier. “You said something about the nature of the jobs and the attitudes about them. I think you’ve got the attitudes captured there now, both for the rank-and-file and for the managers. But you don’t have anything about the nature of the jobs.”
Mark sighed and said, “Yup, that’s what I get for thinking out loud. The old group actually had jobs. The new group really doesn’t. These people can’t have an attitude about jobs, because in the usual sense of the word they don’t really have jobs. They identify what needs to get done, figure out who needs to help, who can contribute, then they get it done. In a way, that’s part of the problem, because sometimes someone else did it last time, and did it differently. And now this person has to re-invent that. Or sometimes someone gets left out and the result suffers.”
Steve recalled another comment Mark had made. “You also said something to the effect that ‘we have figured out the right way’, and that became the job – doing it that way. In a sense, what you’re saying is that the job – or at least the job description – is what connected the manager to the worker in the old group. What connects them in the new group?”
“This new group,” Mark began, “doesn’t really have jobs, like I just said. So it’s kind of like the burden has shifted from us providing a job description to them providing the capability to figure out what needs to be done, then do it.”
Steve picked out an idea and probed a little deeper. “You said ‘capability’. Is that what connects manager to worker in the new group’s environment?”
“No,” Mark responded, “it’s bigger than just ‘capability’. It’s the capability to do it all right, but also knowing when to do it, and what else needs to be coordinated with it. So it’s not really ‘knowledge’ or ‘ability’ or ‘skill’. I don’t know a good word. I need something that brings all those together, and maybe more besides. Maybe their overall ‘competence’ describes what I’m after. Do you think so? There’s still something missing. I know it. I just don’t know what it is.”
Old Group New Group
They added Job and Competence to the model, then Steve left for a meeting.
. . .
This time it was Steve who made a point of catching up with Mark. “You know that ‘job model’ we were working on?” Steve began. “Well, it’s been bugging me since last time we talked. I think you’re right that something is missing about the connection between the worker and the manager.”
“Me, too,” Mark replied. “What we have in there, with job and competence … that’s like the ‘what’ answer.”
“Huh?” was the best Steve could offer. “You’ve lost me now completely. Catch me up with your thinking.”
Mark tried again, saying, “Well, the job is sort of what ties the worker to the manager in the old group. If you say, ‘What ties connect them?’ The answer is job. But I think there’s another question that’s just as important. What else is there about the connection that’s important? Not just what, but something else …”
“Well, the two other words that come to mind with questions are ‘why’ and ‘how’,” Steve suggested. “Is it how they’re connected?
“Let’s start with ‘why’ instead,” Mark countered. “I don’t think that the ‘why’ is different. In either case, the old group or the new one, why people are there at all is mostly about being employed and all that goes along with that – you know, money, satisfaction, social things, actually having a job ….”
Steve waited than offered, “Well, that leaves ‘how’ … or something completely different. If I ask, ‘How is a worker tied to the manager in the old group if what ties them together is the job?’ and your answer would be …?”
“My first reaction is to say, ‘It’s a contract.’ Like being parties in a contract – that’s how they’re connected. The manager basically outlines the requirements for ‘satisfactory performance’ and promises payment, and the worker signs on the dotted line.”
“And that’s different from the new group’s connection?”
“Well, give me a minute to think,” Mark said. “Yeah, I think that’s right. My turn to ask a question,” Mark smiled. “When you think of ‘contract’ what comes to mind?”
Steve thought for a minute about contracts he had signed, and finally said, “When I think of contract, I think of ‘What’s the absolute least I can do, and still meet the letter of the contract.”
“Exactly!” Mark interjected. “That’s exactly the way I’d characterize the old group. Everyone did what he or she was obligated to do … and not one thing more. Not that they tried to sabotage anything, they just didn’t do anything over and above the stuff in the job description, the contract.”
Steve, thinking about his own experience with contracts agreed. “Yeah, I can see that. But we’re trying to figure out how workers are connected to managers. You’re saying it’s not that way in the new group? Then just how are they connected in the new group?”
Mark hesitated, “If it’s not a contract, what is it? If it’s not based on detailed obligations, if it’s not about minimal compliance – we had compliance on there already, right? -- then what? Instead of trying to do the least you can get away with, you’re really trying to do whatever you can to make things work. It’s not about being as small as you can, but about being as big as you can. It’s about using your potential to contribute to … to … something.”
“What ‘something’?” Steve asked.
“You know, I don’t think it’s really important what that ‘something’ is, as long as there is one. It might be the relationship with the manager or with the others in the group, or it might be the goals of the group. But there’s this sense of relationship to something bigger than you. And making this minimal effort at compliance seems like, dishonest or something, like you’re letting the others down. ”
“I like that,” Steve said simply.
“Well, let’s do the usual – put it on paper, then let it soak for a while,” Mark suggested.
Old Group New Group
Job \ Contract Competence \ Relationship
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